Tibet was rocked by its biggest uprising for almost 20 years this week as protesters fought running battles against police. China’s rulers responded by sealing off the province from the media and instituting a brutal crackdown.
The riots and protests that have erupted in Tibet this week are the product of decades of national oppression.
Early last week, Buddhist monks from the main monasteries in Lhasa, Tibet’s capital, led essentially peaceful demonstrations to mark the anniversary of a failed uprising in 1959.
They were met by thousands of armed police, and as the demonstrations escalated the police opened fire. Protesters fought back with rocks and iron bars, setting fire to many Chinese-owned businesses.
By last weekend the protesters were in control of the heart of Lhasa. Tibetan exiles claimed that the police had shot at least 80 people. The Chinese government flooded the city with troops and armoured cars.
There were also non-violent demonstrations in Shigatse, Tibet’s second city, and in the town of Xiahe in the north-western province of Gansu.
Tibetan exile websites have also reported protests in the Chinese provinces of Qinghai and Sichuan, which border Tibet.
All three provinces are part of “historic” Tibet and have substantial Tibetan populations.
The last time there were mass protests on this scale was March 1989, when Buddhist monks led protests that were violently attacked. Protesters managed to hold the centre of Lhasa for three days before a vicious crackdown killed hundreds of people.
The protests today seem to be on an even larger scale, although it is probable that there is no common organisation behind them. All started by marking the anniversary of 1959, which has become a rallying point for Tibetan nationalism.
Before 1953 Tibet was a monarchy ruled by the Dalai Lama. It was a desperately poor and unequal country, with the majority of the population working as serfs for big landowners.
The Chinese army invaded in 1953, and at first collaborated with the Dalai Lama and the landowners. But as the Chinese army took ever greater control over Tibet, it provoked a series of revolts.
These culminated in the March 1959 uprising. The Chinese army responded with widespread repression, forcing some 50,000 Tibetan people to flee into India with the Dalai Lama.
China imposed a colonial regime on Tibet. In the early 1960s there was widespread famine as the government banned traditional crops and tried to make peasants grow cereals unsuited to Tibet’s altitude.
Shortly afterwards, during the Cultural Revolution, there were attacks on Tibetan cultural and religious institutions. People were attacked in the streets for wearing traditional clothes.
The repression in Tibet has partially eased since Mao Zedong’s death in 1976. China’s economic boom has led to new industries and a major boom in tourism. Last year the first rail link opened between Tibet and China.
But the economic growth has passed by most Tibetans. Chinese people and other ethnic minorities have taken most of the new jobs created – which is one reason why they were targeted during the recent rioting.
In the countryside, the government is carrying out a massive relocation project – one in ten Tibetans was forcibly rehoused last year.
Although the new housing is an improvement on the old, the communities being uprooted are given no choice in the matter. In the process, increasing numbers of people are forced off the land to find labouring work in the cities.
The riots in Tibet could hardly have come at a worse time for the Chinese government. As part of the preparations for the Olympics in August, the Olympic flame was due to be carried through Lhasa in June.
China’s rulers want to use the Olympics to show how China has become a major world power – and are desperate to avoid any exposure of the ugly realities of China’s growth.
They now face the dilemma of either having the torch relayed behind a massive military presence, or risking further pro-independence demonstrations.
In the short term, China has the firepower to win in Lhasa, and will probably be able to impose a media blackout on its repression.
But the riots have given the pro-Tibetan independence movement a massive boost, and acted as a powerful reminder of China’s continuing occupation of Tibet.
Coming at the same time as the worst inflation figures for 12 years, the problems for China’s rulers are multiplying.